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Perfect Sense (2011)
Lyrical mix of "end times" and "true love" with some dazzling results
Perfect Sense (2011)
Take a whole new end of the world idea, one that's preposterous and chilling, and layer a naturally "perfect" romance into it, and you have this ambitious, lovely movie. You surely must suspend your disbelieflike when the blind people cross the tracks and step perfectly over the rails, or when everyone succumbs to a symptom simultaneouslybut that's part of what makes the movie work. It takes chances, never loses touch with its heart, and has two terrific leads holding it all together.
The first of these is the ever interesting Ewan McGregor, who seems to zero in on slightly offbeat semi-big budget films. That is, he's not doing indie movies (yet), but he sometimes moves through a less obvious zone of really compelling projects with high production values, like "Trainspotting," "Moulin Rouge!," and "Cassandra's Dream." So he has a likable (some would say lovable) quality here as a regular guy, a serious chef who's selfish in relationships.
Until he meets, by chance, the other lead, Eva Green, who is distant and reluctant and gradually won over by this sweetness of this man. At first he seems like a player, but they both realize there is something special going on. And what a time to fall in love, just when the world is falling apart.
Oh, you want to know what goes wrong with everyone, worldwide? I'm not telling. Even the first instance is a nice surprise (I hadn't read any blurbs). There is a lightness to the terrifying truth of it, and to the lack of fighting back (even though Green plays an epidemiologist). It's a little like "Children of Men" in that sense, where a malady strikes and it goes worldwide and there is not clue how that could possibly be true.
Because, in fact, it's not about that, exactly. Or it uses those events to make you see what matters from the point of view of the protagonists.
The reason it fails to quite transcend, despite having all the elements to do so, is partly that the answer (to what matters in life) we already know. The movie confirms it beautifullyI recommend watching itbut there is possibly an emptiness of purpose that gets in the way. And the other plot, the illness spreading in stages through the world, is left alone, except for how it affects the afflicted. Which is everyone.
Flores Raras (2013)
Gorgeous, real, richly evocative on many levels
Reaching for the Moon (2013)
Wonderful! The story of the Brazilian years of the great North American poet, Elizabeth Bishop. There are so many beautiful aspects to the characters, their setting, and their relationships it's hard to know where to begin. And even better, on top of all this, is the historical recreation of the times, and the changing political climate of Brazil. It's touching and uplifting and tragic.
The original title of this is "Flores Raras" because these were indeed rare people, and doing beautiful things. And yes, they were reaching for the moon but you might rather say they reached the moon. Succeeding at something is more than literally fulfilling.
The plot has a slightly meandering, unfamiliar arc through the main events, and there are times when you think one thing and then suddenly another happens. Don't blame bad writing, but rather realize that this is how life is, and how it really was. Remember as well that these are artists of privilege at work, they have money and education and act with a kind of license and liberation that we all should feel. And so it's unpredictable.
As a kind of true insight into the poetic process you might find few parallels in the movies. You learn their temperaments, and how circumstances make the artist and the poet come to their best. The intimate circumstances are about love, a really true deep love that grows between these two women. Their professional needs reinforce and conflict with their personal needs, but they make it work.
The outside circumstances are hard to understand from 2014. Brazil was once a very different country, filled with far more freedom and sense of liberation. (This seems to be a direction that are pointed in again, though going through fits and starts.) But the world in post-War Brazil was one of possibility. It was a haven (not just for ex-Nazis) and a growing "New World," but it was also stuffed with poverty (which the movie ignores), a legacy still at hand.
And this is exciting stuff. The movie moves mostly through the confines of their big, gorgeous estate in the hills, but it also shows us the city, and the larger world. So Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares, an important architect of the era. grow and suffer and see their world fall apart around them (Brazil fell under dictatorship in the mid 1960s). It's filmed with utter beauty, the acting is sharp and convincing, and the writing (not surprisingly) is fluid and tight. Great stuff.
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Highly regarded, but it's filled with empty nostalgia and clichés galore
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
I wanted to like this movie. A good friend pressed it forward as a belated view of the black noir experience, and there was such truth that the urban black world hadn't seen any attention in the classic noir days (post-War) I had to watch it.
But this is more belated than anything. It's loaded with clichés without really moving them anywhere new (and a stale cliché is really deadening). The director AND screenwriter, Carl Franklin, is relatively untestedhe's done a bunch of t.v. stuff, an African-American with talent as an a actor but a little stretched here, I think. The star does his best to hold it together, none other than Denzel Washington, but in fact even he is following old patterns a bit listlessly. This is really clear when a truly brilliant actor arrives on the sceneDon Cheadleand in his moments there is finally a rising up and synthesis of intentions.
The plot is almost a givena detective on the outs faces a terrible crime, and a mysterious woman (call her a femme fatale if you want, but she's too plastic to work for me). He is hounded by a white man (or two) with truly dubious or evil intentions that he can't quite decipher. Until it really gets out of his control.
The book is here is by the much lauded author Walter Mosley, and I only discovered this today (I saw them movie innocently). And I've read one or two things by Mosley and actually found the same problem as the movie: lots of tropes and worn out problems approached in the same old way. Except with black characters.
Now this may be naive, but I think in fact the world of urban Blacks and their crime worlds in mid-Century America is really really ripe for some serious fictional writing. Something without myth making. There must be a black Bogart or Mitchum type out there for those inclined. There's another problem, though, looking back and wishing we had better movies about certain things than we did. Maybe that's just the way it was, and we need new movies about new things, not re-hashed themes that only half make up for what might have been. Or not. We weren't there, and we never can be.
So all good intentions aside, give this movie a skeptical look. It's well enough made and has some tightly made moments, but as a whole it flounders and lacks one of the basicsoriginality.
Toward the Unknown (1956)
A canned plot but some great airplane and rocket footage
Toward the Unknown (1956)
In some ways this is fascinating stuffyou get a glimpse of mid-50s American military aeronautics, and a specific mention (and micro-glimpse) of the rocket efforts marking early space technology. William Holden plays a troubled test pilot who leads us through the different planes and testing efforts via his own return and rise through the system. It's not bad.
You can't quite call this a formula filmmaybe a genre film if there is a genre called test pilots in troublebut there is a canned quality to this whole thing that holds it back unreasonably. There is the woman from his past who loves him but also has an affair going with the general (the likable Lloyd Nolan) on the base (Edwards Air Force Base). There are the competing test pilots (all good actors known mostly for television). It makes for a good group that is forced into a thin plot about rivalry and camaraderie.
The really best part of the plot (and the reason I watched the movie at first) is that Holden is a man who was in a Korean War prison camp, where he was abused and tortured and "brainwashed." It's this last thing that was so talked about at the time, and which was used to make some really terrific movies like "The Manchurian Candidate," and I wanted to see where it would go here. Well, a heads up, it goes nowhere. His prison camp experience causes a pivotal scene in the movie on the base, but it doesn't seem to have anything to do with brainwashing.
Too bad on that.
Holden by this point in his career is not the leading man he once was, though this is just five years after his terrific comeback year with "Union Station" and "Sunset Blvd." But he's really good, holding his scenes together with the woman (Virginia Leith) who has the eyes (blue) and lips (red) to pop on the WarnerColor screen, but who can't act very well.
Obviously if you like airplanes and the air force, this is a movie to definitely see. Some great footage of test aircraft in flight (real footage from the military). And of course the whole supersonic flying experiments were a big deal at the time. If all of this seems a bore and too historical for a good movie, you're partly right. It's not a great plot or drama. But it's not a terrible movie by any means. Director Mervyn LeRoy, rightfully a legend by now, and cinematographer Harold Rossen, equally a legend, together made sure that it held water and survives it's own flaws very well.
In Name Only (1939)
Two women want the same man--the problem is one of them is his wife
In Name Only (1939)
I thought I had seen pretty much every Cary Grant movie but this one evaded me and it was a thrill to discover, right from his best early period stuff. And he's good, and the movie is good, a story of being trapped in a bad marriage and then finding the right girl. And having your wife connive and become almost murderous to keep the marriage from ending.
It's all about money, too, since Grant plays a wealthy young man. So his wife, played with utter, awful precision by Kay Francis, has her eye on the dollar as she sees him begin to stray. The new woman is a restrained Carole Lombard, who is lovable and sincere, even after it becomes clear that Grant will never get free of his wife. It's all drama, not quite soap opera, and it's convincing enough to work. Grant has some moments where he has to act with some deeper richness, not his strong point, but he hangs in there (especially if you are predisposed to liking him). But Lombard and Francis are pitch perfect, and if quite the opposites, equally so.
Director John Cromwell had just directed Lombard in "Made for Each Other" (with Jimmy Stewart) and he has a way of bringing her out. This one is a better film, however, I think, so if you liked that other one, give this a look. Grant just filmed "Bringing up Baby" and is at the height of his lovable comic career. This would be his only film with Lombard, who actually might have been a good match in a lighter, wittier movie.
Expect nothing less than a fast, smartly written, involving drama.
Invisible Stripes (1939)
Well made, well acted, with a solid well-meant story about justice and reform
Invisible Stripes (1939)
Both a crime movie and a message movie, a Warner Bros. look at two convicts released at the same time each trying to go back to some life outside of jail. It's interesting, and well done of course (it's 1939 after all), and stars George Raft who holds his own in his stiff, sincere way. More curious for sure is the secondary role by the up and coming Humphrey Bogart, still a couple years from his breakthrough movies. And then maybe most astonishing to see is a very young William Holden (I didn't even recognize him) in his second credited role.
It's Raft who plays the good guy, almost too good to believe for a guy who did years of jail time, but the idea is that he's learned his lesson and he's going straight. Even with his edgy little brother itching to be a criminal himself. They have for a mom the dependable Flora Robson who is filled with such worldly pathos you can't help but feel for her. The girlfriend here is the really convincing Jane Bryan, who had a short career with mostly stereotyped roles but she exudes true innocent sweetness on screen (she appeared in lots of great Warner films of the late thirties, including "Each Dawn I Die).
And Bogart here plays the bad guy, the ex-con who is going to jump right into his old ways. We don't see much of him for most of the movie, except a couple scenes to show his girlfriend with hair of "gold" and his crooked gang of friends. But of course the two worldsnice family with two troubled sons and loner man with his thugsre- collide. Temptations of easy money, a seeming sense of poverty, and several kinds of loyalty (to a brother, to a friend, to a lover) all play together there and the last half of the movie is top notch stuff.
The message part of the movie is simple but important, and as usual has Warner Bros pointing to some problems in society from a generally liberal point of view. That is, an ex-con deserves an honest shake because the system is stacked against him. It works. When the sign lights up at the end and it says "bros" up there (just like Warner Bros), you feel all the ramifications of that built up through the story.
There are enough clichés here, and few little moments that seem a bit rushed or choppy (including the sudden change in attitude of the Holden character) you might not find this to be a classic. But it's really good. See it!
Goodbye Again (1933)
If you love screwball, you'll love this--sublime!
Goodbye Again (1933)
A rollicking, smartly written, snappily acted comedy farce. Yes, I loved it.
Joan Blondell is the famous leading woman here, but it is really the witty, sharp performance by Warren William that lifts this great comedy to a true high. Add the very canny direction by none other than Michael Curtiz and you can see why this is a must see. You might even call this a screwball comedy, though coming a year before screwball's more official inception with "It Happened One Night."
The first real scene here might lead you to think it was going to be one kind of comedy, filled with subtle playacting and a kind of mismatched couple sparring. Hugh Herbert is a quirky character actor at his subtle best here, with mannerisms that surprise every time I see him, and he plays the bewildered husband perfectly. His wife, played well by Genevieve Tobin, is a ditzy but not stupid woman with a crush on an old flame who is now a famous author.
But wait for the real wit and cleverness to begin when this very author (Warren William) comes to town and she goes to seduce him. William is a perfect cad. He's without scruples, which makes you love him even if you might (might) disagree with his actions. (No one is ever actually hurt in these matters.) Blondell plays his secretary, supremely capable and devoted and yet independent. You suspect they should be the real couple in the movie, but they aren't.
Things only compound and get more zany with each scene, ending with exactly the fast, laugh out loud conclusion you kind of wanted all along. This is true pre-Code comedy, with adultery barely veiled (or not veiled at all if you're awake), and with no required justice for "crimes" committed along the way. Which makes it all terribly fun and funny and just slightly naughty. For all these reasons this is a movie not to miss.
Death on the Diamond (1934)
Do baseball, murder, and corny acting mix? Not quite!
Death on the Diamond (1934)
The title and plot sound serious but this is a corny, lighthearted spin on murder and racketeering in America's pastime. And leading man Robert Young plays it so breezy you can't quite take his pitching, or his romancing, seriously.
Which is all intentional, no doubt. This is purely entertainment, and in the style of a B-movie at the time, along the lines of many of the murder mystery series that were so popular. The acting and the plots are functional, and fun enough to work, and there is one main hook to keep you interested. Or at least me interested in this one. I knew after ten minutes the movie had no real merit, but I watched it anyway, just to see how they handled the idea.
The idea is sensational: a famously bad baseball team (the St. Louis Cardinals) is surprisingly good thanks to their new sensational pitcher. So a notorious gambler is going to lose big money, and an aggressive businessman is going to fail to buy the team at the end of the season. But only if, in fact, the Cardinals continue to win. So key players start to die. Yes, they are murdered in all kinds of ways. It's a terrifying idea, and I suppose feasible even if preposterous, and you do wonder what the league, and the players, and the fans, and the cops would do.
Well, it is all handled rather lightly. The show must go on, and baseball must be played. Even as bodies are found in the middle of a game, there is no sense that murder trumps nine innings of play, and you really do have to roll your eyes. And then the characters go along with it, too, showing no real fear that they might be next. The actual killers are never really seenjust a shadow, or the barrel of a gunand so the suspense is deliberately kept low key.
Baseball fans, and baseball movie fans, will no doubt find something to like here. There is a bit of actual footage at the St. Louis baseball stadium, and quite a few actual ballplayers are used in background roles. Young isn't a completely awful pitcher, but you can see when he's pitching in front of a projected backdrop at the studio. There is one little baseball gaffe, it seemsin the bottom of the 9th, St. Louis needs one run to win, but they post two runs, allowing an extra baserunner to score (it wasn't a home run), which isn't how the rules work today, at least.
See this? Not unless you really love baseball.
Great acting, fun twist to the plot, well filmed
Half detective, half supernatural thriller, this movie really moves. It's clever but not preposterous, and Denzel Washington anchors the whole things with his smiling believability. This is a good one. And the rest of the cast is fabulous, from John Goodman to Donald Sutherland. The one woman is the convincing Embeth Davidtz, and there is a small role even for the late James Gandolfini.
The plot seems straight up at first, as Denzel's character, Hobbes, looks for a murderer who seems to become a serial murderer. This morphs slowly into a a supernatural evil force inhabiting people and making them bad. This grows without a sense of shock so that there is a logic gradually built up.
And the target of this evilness seems to be Hobbes, though we never quite know why. (He catches bad guys and one of them is executed at the start, but the spirit shouldn't have been bothered by this.) Hobbes of course feels that the crimes don't make sense, and his encounter with Davidtz's character, who studies angels and spirits, is a turning point.
There are of course hundreds of horror films with similar kinds of plots, and what makes this one rise above most of them is how well made it is. Credit here goes beyond Washington, though he's clearly key. The cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, is excellent (he also shot "Three Kings" and "Drive") and the coherence of the complex movie is partly because of a consistent visual flow.
Director Gregory Hoblit is mostly a TV guy, but around the time of this movie he made a few others with similar success, including "Fracture" which is quite good in the same solid way and "Primal Fear" which has a terrific performance by Edward Norton.
"Fallen" does come out of a familiar mold, and that is one reason why it is satisfying (many of us know we like this kind of film) and also limited ultimately (it isn't completely fresh, after all). I suspect nearly everyone will like aspects of this, even if the most demanding viewer will groan at some of the clichés. The acting alone rises up in so many cases, the rest is easy to really like.
Jimmy the Gent (1934)
A speedy but empty, facile comedy that could've been much more!
Jimmy the Gent (1934)
As an old-film lover, I'm going to have to disagree with the majority of reviewers here and say this film is too flawed and formulaic to rise above its peers. Even its star, James Cagney, is a bit rote and predictable, taking on a harsh edge that prevents any depth to his supposedly complicated character. The other star is in retrospectthis is an early Bette Davis appearance, and she's wonderful to see so unformed, but she, too, is playing a common role.
All is not disaster here, for sure. The pace is terrific, and turns of plot, which are a problem overall in their quick succession, keep you on your toes. There are stock characters in secondary roles who will be familiar to early Warner Bros. fans, and the filming is generally solid, if bright and a bit dull, too.
Yes, there are hesitations at every turn. Director Michael Curtiz has been cranking out films by the dozen for Hollywood by now, after emigrating from Europe, and many of those are frankly better and worth seeking out. But he's a long way from the mastery of "Casablanca" or "Mildred Pierce," as a director above all.
The story here seems workableCagney and Davis play characters who scheme a complicated scam involving a huge inheritance. The twists are basically a farce because there are so many and they happen without warning. In fact, I think the style of the film is to have everything just "happen" in a madcap way, and the audience is to be dazzled and impressed by the audacity of the writers. But there is a little sense of involvement that would help very much, a wanting the characters to win or lose at their efforts. One example is how two court cases are reduced to a single sentence each: the judges reading their conclusion.
That seems dandy in a way, a hugely streamlined plot. But it defines superficial, too. In these two cases, there is time spent watching the courtroom crowd reacting to the news, but we don't really care about that. We aren't made to care.
Not that this should be a drama, of course. It's a comedy plain and simple. And a slip of romance sneaks in as our two leads brush past each other now and then. All of it is interesting, and it's never quite boring. But for a fast pre-Code or early Code era movie, there are many examples that are fast, funny, and engrossing and inventive, too. Expect only the effects here.